Giulio De’ Medici was the bastard son of Giuliano, Lorenzo the Magnificent’s brother, who had been assassinated by the Pazzi in Florence cathedral forty-five years before. Lorenzo had tracked down the mother and had persuaded her to allow him to bring up the boy as his own. Then, when Lorenzo himself died in 1492, Giulio was placed under the guardianship of his second son, Giovanni. Since the guardian was only three years older than the ward, the two became close friends, and when Giovanni became Pope Leo X one of his first acts was to legitimize his cousin, making him a cardinal and effective ruler of Florence.
Despite their mutual affection, the two could hardly have been more different. Leo was unusually ugly, with a huge head and a fat, red face, but he possessed a charm which many found irresistible. Clement, now forty-eight, was tall and slim; he might have been good-looking but for his thin, tightly compressed lips, haughty expression, and almost perpetual frown. He was pious, conscientious, industrious; but nobody, with the single exception of his friend Benvenuto Cellini, liked him much. Guicciardini went so far as to describe him as “somewhat morose and disagreeable, reputed to be avaricious, far from trustworthy, and naturally disinclined to do a kindness.” Anyone who thought that his election signaled a return to the extravagant and easygoing days of Pope Leo was in for a disappointment.
It might reasonably have been supposed that such a man would prove at least a competent pope. Alas, Clement was nothing of the kind. He was vacillating and irresolute, terrified when called upon to make a decision. He might have been a moderately good major; as a general he was a disaster. Leopold von Ranke, the great German historian, dubbed him the most disastrous of all the popes, which—if one remembers the Papacy in the tenth and eleventh centuries—seems a little unfair; the fact remains that the eleven years of his pontificate saw the worst sack of Rome since the barbarian invasions, the establishment in Germany of Protestantism as a separate religion, and the definitive breakaway of the English Church over Henry VIII’s divorce.
Finding himself, as Hadrian had before him, caught in the whirlpool caused by the rivalry between Charles V and the King of France, Clement dealt with the situation even more clumsily than his predecessor. His first loyalty should clearly have been to the emperor, to whom he largely owed his election; but in 1524 he joined with Venice and Florence in a secret alliance with France, and Francis, with an army of some 20,000, marched back over the Mont-Cenis pass into Italy. In late October he recaptured Milan, then turned south to Pavia, where he spent the winter trying unsuccessfully to divert the Ticino River as a means of taking the city. He was still there four months later when an imperial army arrived. Imperialists and Frenchmen met just outside Pavia, and on Tuesday, February 21, 1525, battle was joined.
The Battle of Pavia proved to be one of the most decisive engagements in European history. It was also the first to prove conclusively the superiority of firearms over pikes. When the fighting was over, the French army had been virtually annihilated; Francis himself had shown, as always, exemplary courage: after his horse had been killed under him, he had continued to fight on foot until at last, overcome by exhaustion, he had been obliged to give himself up. A prisoner, he was sent to Spain, where he remained for a year in not uncomfortable confinement until Charles released him in return for his signature to what was known as the Treaty of Madrid, by which he renounced all claims to Burgundy, Naples, and Milan. When he returned to Paris, however, and the terms of the treaty were made public, there was a general outcry. Pope Clement in particular was aghast: without a French presence in Italy, how could he hope to defend himself against the emperor? Hastily he recruited Milan, Venice, and Florence to form an anti-imperialist league for the defense of a free and independent Italy—and invited France to join. Though the ink was scarcely dry on the Treaty of Madrid, and though he and the pope held widely differing views on Milan—the pope favoring the Sforzas, while Francis wanted the city for himself—on May 15, 1526, the king, with his usual flourish, signed his name.
The League of Cognac, as it was called, introduced an exciting new concept into Italian affairs. Here, for perhaps the first time, was an agreement dedicated to the proposition that Milan, and so by extension all other Italian states, should be free of foreign domination. Liberty was the watchword. It need hardly be said, however, that Charles V did not view the League in quite this light. To him it was a direct and deliberate challenge, and over the next few months relations between himself and the pope steadily deteriorated. Finally, in September, two letters from the emperor were dispatched to Rome. They could hardly have been more outspoken if they had been written by Martin Luther himself. The first, addressed personally to the pope, accused him of failing in his duties toward Christendom, Italy, and even the Holy See. The second, to the cardinals of the Sacred College, went further still. If, it suggested, the pope refused to summon a General Council for the reform of the Church, it was the responsibility of the College to do so without his consent. Here was a clear threat to papal authority. To Pope Clement, indeed, it was tantamount to a declaration of war.
In and around Milan the fighting had hardly ever stopped; there must have been many Milanese who, on waking in the morning, found it difficult to remember whether they owed their allegiance to the Sforzas, the emperor, or the King of France. An imperial army had marched into the city in November 1525 and spent the winter besieging the unfortunate Duke Francesco Maria Sforza in the citadel, and Sforza had finally capitulated on July 15, 1526. The news of his surrender had plunged the pope into black despair. His treasury was empty, he was detested in Rome, and his theoretical ally Francis was not lifting a finger to help him. Meanwhile, the Reformation was gaining ground and the Ottoman threat still loomed. And now, as autumn approached, there were rumors that the emperor was preparing a huge fleet, which would land some 10,000 troops in the Kingdom of Naples—effectively on his own doorstep. More serious still, Clement was aware that there were imperial agents in the city, doing everything they could to stir up trouble against him with the enthusiastic help of a member of his own Sacred College, Cardinal Pompeio Colonna.
For well over two centuries, Rome had been split by the rivalry of two of its oldest families, the Colonna and the Orsini. Both were enormously rich, and both ruled over their immense domains as if they were themselves sovereign states, each with its own cultivated court. Their wealth in turn allowed them to contract advantageous marriages; people still talked of the wedding festivities of Clarice Orsini with Clement’s uncle Lorenzo de’ Medici, the most sumptuous celebrations of the fifteenth century. But the Orsini had long enjoyed what might be called a special relationship with the Papacy, by reason of the fact that all the principal roads leading north out of Rome passed through their territory. Successive popes, therefore, had taken care not to offend them.
This alone was more than enough to antagonize their rivals, whose outstanding representative in the 1520s was Pompeio Colonna. The cardinal had begun life as a soldier and should probably have remained one. He had entered the Church only because of family pressures; never could he have been described as a man of God. Julius II, indeed, who was even less of one, had refused to promote him; it was Leo X who had eventually admitted him to the Sacred College, but any gratitude that he might have felt was certainly not extended to Leo’s cousin. For Clement he cherished a bitter hatred, powerfully fueled by jealousy, and a consequent determination to eliminate him—either by deposition or, if necessary, by death.
In August 1526 Pompeio’s kinsman Vespasiano Colonna came to Rome to negotiate a truce between his own family on the one hand and the pope and the Orsini on the other. Clement, much relieved, disbanded his own troops—whereupon the army of the Colonna instantly attacked the city of Anagni, effectively blocking communications between Rome and Naples. The pope had still not recovered from his surprise or had a chance to remobilize when, at dawn on September 20, that same army smashed through the Gate of St. John Lateran and poured into Rome. At about five that same afternoon, after hours of heavy fighting, Clement fled along the covered passage that Alexander VI had built for just such eventualities, leading from the Vatican to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Meanwhile, the looting and plundering had begun. As one of the secretaries of the Curia reported:
The papal palace was almost completely stripped, even to the bedroom and wardrobe of the Pope. The great and private sacristy of St. Peter’s, that of the palace, the apartments of prelates and members of the household, even the horse stalls were emptied, their doors and windows shattered; chalices, crosses, pastoral staffs, ornaments of great value, all that fell into their hands was carried off as plunder by this rabble.
The mob even broke into the Sistine Chapel, where the Raphael tapestries were torn from the walls. Golden and jeweled chalices, patens, and all manner of ecclesiastical treasures were seized, to a value estimated at 300,000 ducats.
With proper preparations made, a pope could hold out in the Castel Sant’Angelo for months; on this occasion, however, the fortress was completely unprovisioned. Clement had no choice but to make what terms he could. The ensuing negotiations were delicate, but their results were less than satisfactory to Pompeio Colonna, who now realized that his attempted coup had been a failure. Public opinion had swung dramatically against his family. Rome had been plundered, and the Colonna had—rightly—been blamed. In November the cardinal was deprived of all his dignities and benefices, and the leading members of his family suffered similar treatment. Apart from three small fortresses, they had lost all their property in the Papal States.
Clement had survived, but only just. According to another member of the Curia, writing toward the end of November 1526:
The pope sees nothing ahead but ruin: not just his own, for which he cares little, but that of the Apostolic See, of Rome, of his own country, and of the whole of Italy. Moreover, he sees no way of preventing it. He has expended all his own money, all that of his friends, all that of his servants. Our reputation, too, is gone.
He had good reason to be depressed. Strategically he was vulnerable on every side, and the emperor was exploiting his vulnerability to the full. The previous August, the Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent had won one of his greatest victories at Mohács in Hungary. And now there came the news of the defection of Ferrara, whose duke, Alfonso II d’Este, had joined the imperialists. “The Pope,” wrote the Milanese envoy, “seems struck dead. All the attempts of the ambassadors of France, England, and Venice to restore him have been in vain.… He looks like a sick man whom the doctors have given up.” Still his tribulations were not over. On December 12 a Spanish envoy delivered a personal letter from the emperor repeating his demand for a General Council. Early in 1527 it was learned that an imperial army under the Duke of Bourbon was advancing on the Papal States.
Charles, third Duke of Bourbon, was one of the exalted members of the French nobility and the hereditary Constable of France. He should have been fighting for his king, to whom he was distantly related, but Francis’s mother, Louise of Savoy, had contested his inheritance and in a fit of pique he had sold his sword to the emperor. Despite his treachery he was a charismatic figure, admired by all his men for his courage. He never shirked an engagement and could always be found where the fighting was thickest, easily distinguishable by the silver-and-white surcoat he always wore and by his black, white, and yellow standard on which was emblazoned the single word ESPÉRANCE. Now, as he advanced southward from Milan at the head of an army of some 20,000 German and Spanish troops, the citizens of all the towns along his route—Piacenza and Parma, Reggio, Modena, and Bologna—worked frantically on their defenses. They could have saved themselves the trouble: the duke had no intention of wasting time on them. He led his army directly to Rome, drawing it up on the Janiculum Hill immediately outside the city wall, and at four in the morning of May 6, 1527, the attack began.
In the absence of heavy artillery, Bourbon had decided that the walls would have to be scaled, a technique far more difficult and dangerous than that of simply pounding them till they crumbled. He himself was one of the first of the casualties. He had just led a troop of Germans to the foot of the wall and was actually positioning a scaling ladder when he was shot through the chest by an arquebus. (Benvenuto Cellini, who was present, goes a long way toward claiming personal responsibility.) The fall of the unmistakable silver-clad figure was seen by besiegers and besieged alike, and for an hour or so the fate of the siege hung in the balance; then the thought of revenge spurred the Germans and Spaniards on to ever-greater efforts, and between six and seven in the morning the imperial army burst into the city. From that moment on there was little resistance. The Romans rushed from the wall to defend their homes, and many of the papal troops joined the enemy to save their own skins. Only the Swiss Guard and some of the papal militia fought heroically on until they were annihilated.
As the invaders approached the Vatican, the pope was hustled out of St. Peter’s and led for the second time along the covered way to the Castel Sant’Angelo, already thronged with panic-stricken families seeking refuge. Such were the crowds that it was only with the greatest difficulty that the portcullis could be lowered. One cardinal had to be pushed in through a window by his servants; another was pulled up in a basket. Outside, in the Borgo and Trastevere, the soldiers embarked on an orgy of killing. Cardinal Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte, the future Pope Julius III, was hung up by his hair. Almost all the patients in the Hospital of Santo Spirito were massacred; of the orphans of the Pietà, not one was left alive.
The imperial army crossed the Tiber just before midnight, the Germans settling in the Campo de’ Fiori, the Spaniards in Piazza Navona. The sack that followed has been described as “one of the most horrible in recorded history.” The bloodbath that had begun across the river continued unabated: to venture out into the street was to invite almost certain death, and to remain indoors was very little safer; scarcely a single church, palace, or house of any size escaped pillage and devastation. Monasteries were plundered and convents violated, the more attractive nuns being sold in the streets for a giulio apiece. At least two cardinals were dragged through the streets and tortured; one of them, who was well over eighty, subsequently died of his injuries. “Hell,” reported a Venetian eyewitness, “has nothing to compare with the present state of Rome.”
It was four days and four nights before the city had any respite. Only with the arrival on May 10 of Pompeio Colonna and his two brothers, with 8,000 of their men, was a semblance of order restored. By that time virtually every street in the city had been gutted and was strewn with corpses. One captured Spanish sapper later reported that on the north bank of the Tiber alone he and his companions had buried nearly 10,000 and had thrown another 2,000 into the river. Six months later, thanks to widespread starvation and a long epidemic of plague, the population of Rome was less than half what it had been before the siege; much of the city had been left a smoldering shell, littered with bodies lying unburied during the hottest season of the year. Culturally, too, the loss was incalculable. Paintings, sculptures, whole libraries—including that of the Vatican itself—were ravaged and destroyed, the pontifical archives ransacked. The painter Parmigianino was imprisoned, saving his life only by making drawings of his jailers.
The imperial army, meanwhile, had suffered almost as much as the Romans. It, too, was virtually without food; its soldiers, unpaid for months, were totally demoralized, interested only in loot and pillage. Discipline had broken down: Germans and Spaniards were at each other’s throats. Pope Clement, however, had no course open to him but once again to capitulate. The official price he paid was the cities of Ostia, Civitavecchia, Piacenza, and Modena, together with 400,000 ducats, a sum which could be raised only by melting down all the papal tiaras and selling the gold and jewels with which they were encrusted; the actual price was higher still, since the Venetians, in spite of their alliance, had seized Cervia and Ravenna. The Papal States, in which an efficient government had been developing for the first time in history, had crumbled away. Early in December the pope escaped from Rome and traveled in disguise to Orvieto; it was there that he received ambassadors from Henry VIII of England, seeking their master’s release from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. One of them reported:
The Pope lieth in an old palace of the bishops of the city, ruinous and decayed; as we came to his privy chamber we passed three chambers, all naked and unhanged, the roofs fallen down, and, as one can guess, 30 persons—riffraff and others—standing in the chambers for a garnishment. And as for the Pope’s bedchamber, all the apparel in it was not worth 20 nobles … it were better to be in captivity in Rome than here at liberty.
Where the annulment was concerned, the pope—it need hardly be said—dithered; the ambassadors returned disappointed.
Peace, when it came, was the result of negotiations begun during the winter of 1528–1529 between the Emperor Charles’s aunt Margaret of Savoy and her sister-in-law Louise, the mother of King Francis. The two met at Cambrai on July 5, 1529, and the resulting treaty was signed in the first week of August. The Ladies’ Peace, as it came to be called, confirmed Spanish rule in Italy. Francis again renounced all his claims there, receiving in return a promise from Charles not to press the imperial claims to Burgundy, but France’s allies in the League of Cognac were left completely out of the reckoning and were thus obliged to accept the terms that Charles was to impose at the end of the year—terms which included, for Venice, the surrender of all her possessions in South Italy to the Spanish Kingdom of Naples. Francesco Maria Sforza was restored to Milan (though Charles reserved the right to garrison its citadel); the Medici, who had been expelled from Florence in 1527, were also restored (though it took a ten-month siege to effect the restoration); and the island of Malta was given in 1530 as a new home for the Knights of St. John.
It was—to those who felt that the King of France had betrayed them—a shameful settlement. But at least it restored peace to Italy and put an end to the long and unedifying chapter in her history, a chapter which had begun with Charles VIII’s invasion of 1494 and had brought the Italians nothing but devastation and destruction. To seal it all, the emperor now crossed the Alps for the first time, for his imperial coronation. This was no longer an indispensable ceremony; his grandfather Maximilian had done without it altogether, and Charles himself had been nearly ten years on the throne without this final confirmation of his authority. The fact remained, nonetheless, that until the pope had laid the crown on his head his title Holy Roman Emperor was technically unjustified; to one possessing so strong a sense of divine mission, both title and sacrament were important.
Imperial coronations were traditionally performed in Rome. On landing at Genoa, however, in mid-August 1529, Charles received reports of Sultan Süleyman’s steady advance on Vienna and at once decided that a journey so far down the peninsula at such a time would be folly; it would take too long, besides leaving him dangerously cut off in the event of a crisis. Messengers sped to Pope Clement, and it was agreed that in the circumstances the ceremony might be held in Bologna, a considerably more accessible city which still remained firmly under papal control. Even then the uncertainty was not over: while on his way to Bologna in September Charles received an urgent appeal from his brother Ferdinand in Vienna and almost canceled his coronation plans there and then. Only after careful consideration did he decide not to do so. By the time he reached Vienna, either the city would have fallen or the sultan would have retired for the winter; in either event, the small force he had with him in Italy would have been insufficient to tip the scales.
And so, on November 5, 1529, Charles V made his formal entry into Bologna, where, in front of the Basilica of San Petronio, Pope Clement was waiting to receive him. After a brief ceremony of welcome, the two retired to the Palazzo del Podestà across the square, where neighboring apartments had been prepared for them. There was much to be done, many outstanding problems to be discussed and resolved, before the coronation could take place. It was, after all, only two years since papal Rome had been sacked by imperial troops, with Clement himself a virtual prisoner of Charles in the Castel Sant’Angelo; somehow, friendly relations had to be reestablished. Next there were the individual peace treaties to be drawn up with all the Italian ex-enemies of the empire. Only then, when peace had been finally consolidated throughout the peninsula, would Charles feel justified in kneeling before Clement to receive the imperial crown. Coronation Day was fixed for February 24, 1530, and invitations dispatched to all the rulers of Christendom. Charles and Clement had given themselves a little under four months to settle the future of Italy.
Surprisingly, it proved enough. And so the peace was signed, and on the appointed day, in San Petronio, Charles received from the papal hands the sword, orb, scepter, and finally the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. It was the last time in history that a pope was to crown an emperor; on that day the seven-hundred-year-old tradition, which had begun when Pope Leo III had laid the imperial crown on the head of Charlemagne, was brought to an end. The empire was by no means finished, but never again would it be received, even symbolically, from the hands of the Vicar of Christ on Earth.